Last month we brought you the voices of some of NRPA’s earliest supporters as part of our 50th anniversary retrospective. Those gentlemen (Joe Caverly, Jim Peterson, R. Dean Tice, Tony Mobley and Robert Toalson — their Q&As can be found here) were but a few of the brilliant leaders who helped to lay the strong foundation on which NRPA stands today.
NRPA’s modern iteration looks markedly different than the organization first created back in 1965. The composition of its board of directors has changed, its regional offices, once scattered across the country, have closed and the Ahrens Institute in Ashburn, Virginia, now serves as the national headquarters. It took the vision and dedication of many individuals to see NRPA through its evolutions, including that of Lois Finkelman, who served as chair of the NRPA Board of Directors from 2007 to 2010. When the Illinois native and now-Dallas, Texas, resident, joined the board, it included more than 60 members and was difficult to organize and manage. “There was dual leadership, with the chair being a citizen and the president a professional,” Finkelman explains. “Regional Councils were also part of the structure, but conversations had begun regarding reducing the size of the board and eliminating the Regional Councils, primarily as a result of cost and what was seen as redundant layers of governance.” Finkelman was instrumental in moving those conversations along, easing the organization through a major transition that culminated with the hiring of our current President and CEO, Barbara Tulipane.
Here, Finkelman talks about her long career as an advocate for parks and recreation and her thoughts about the future of our field.
Parks & Recreation magazine: Begin by giving us some background — how did your career start and how did you initially come to be connected to NRPA?
Lois Finkelman: I grew up in Chicago…did my undergraduate work in elementary education at Northwestern University and, years later, after my children were born, received a double master’s degree at the University of Texas at Dallas in environmental science and science education. Later, I taught elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, while my husband finished medical school, and ultimately, we ended up in Dallas with three children and two dogs.
I became involved in a local environmental group and chaired it for three years. That visibility led to being appointed by the Dallas City Council to the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Board for eight years. I chaired the board for three terms. In those days, NRPA’s governance included Regional Councils, Branches and Sections. I was encouraged by park department staff to allow my name to be put in for the Southwest Regional Council without knowing that it would also mean I would become a trustee on the national NRPA board. Was I surprised!
I was an active Dallas Park Board member and had become fairly knowledgeable about the issues, and I think the staff was looking for citizen members who would be engaged. I served on the NRPA board for many years, chairing committees, being elected vice-chair and ultimately chair. In the meantime, my role in Dallas had changed. I completed my terms on the Park Board and then ran for the Dallas City Council where I served for eight years.
P&R: Talk about one of your most notable projects/successes/experiences while serving on the Dallas Parks and Recreation Board and on the Dallas Parks Foundation.
Finkelman: As I became president of the board, the Dallas form of government changed and the Park Board went from seven members appointed at-large by the City Council to 15…I had 13 brand-new members with very little, if any, city experience and all kinds of expectations about their power and influence. Our former park department director had resigned a few months before and an interim was serving as director. I was successful in persuading the board (unanimously) to appoint the interim as the director to help stabilize the department and the new inexperienced board. A number of those board members have gone on to serve in higher elected offices. The director served for more than 20 years, almost unheard of in an urban system, until he retired a few years ago.
P&R: What would you consider your greatest success as NRPA board chair?
Finkelman: I’d have to point to two different actions that I think of as successes with lasting impacts. The first one is overseeing and implementing the board’s decision to decrease its size and vote in a process that accomplished that. This ultimately led to a smaller, more responsive board and to the decision to annually rotate a single leadership role between a citizen and a professional.
The second, and perhaps more significant success, was in hiring Barbara Tulipane as NRPA CEO during my tenure as chair. We were looking for new energy — someone who could potentially be a game changer and lead NRPA into new arenas and challenges without changing the organization’s mission. I believe we more than accomplished that when Barbara was hired. From my perspective, now as an outsider, NRPA has become a much more relevant organization as it has adopted current concerns like health and wellness without losing the focus on park and recreation systems and the programs and opportunities they provide.
P&R: Why do you feel parks and recreation is a vital element for healthy, happy and robust communities?
Finkelman: There are so many roles that park and recreation systems play in a community that it’s hard to know where to begin. The first is obviously the opportunity to exercise, recreate and just enjoy the beauty of nature as an escape. Participation in team sports for young children helps build future leaders and citizens, and, at a minimum, teaches them how to work with others. While there are many private athletic facilities, many people either can’t afford them or choose to use the public open space and facilities to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Obesity and diabetes are major issues in our communities today and parks and recreation helps to address them by providing targeted programming and exercises. People continue to try to quantify the economic benefits from having a strong park and recreation system, both from user revenue and the added property values realized in areas with attractive and accessible parks. Many corporate leaders have indicated that two of the major factors they consider when mulling relocation are the schools and the park and recreation system.
P&R: What do you feel is the most pressing issue facing the field of parks and recreation today?
Finkelman: I think that in spite of the very real connection between health and wellness and the role parks and recreation plays in creating and sustaining healthy communities, the most pressing issue is not a new one. It’s ensuring that the local park and recreation departments are reliably funded in order to maintain their facilities, provide programs and acquire additional park land as needed. The same could certainly be said for state park systems and the national parks as well. At the local level, municipal systems continue to fight public safety for city budget dollars, often losing out to police and fire. It’s critical that NRPA members continue to educate and support elected officials who understand the value of their parks and recreational opportunities.
Samantha Bartram is the Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.